Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.
His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.
Ian Nairn’s 1966 comments on Loughborough Junction are ambivalent. He liked the area’s visual drama, railway bridges in all directions, but couldn’t quite bring himself to praise it:
“No performance, so far, but tremendous promise”.
But he didn’t like the Loughborough Estate:
“ … all artificial relationship … an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place”.
First things first. Why “Loughborough”? What has a midlands town to do with this patch of South London? It’s all down to Henry Hastings, seventeenth century aristocrat, incorrigible Royalist, ennobled as First Baron Loughborough by Charles I during the Civil War. Hastings eventually joined the younger Charles Stuart in exile, and came back with him in 1660 for the orgy of intolerance and vindictiveness generally known as the Restoration. From then until his death a few years later Hastings lived south of the river, in what was then London’s semi-rural hinterland. His home was about here:
in the triangle now formed by Evandale, Claribel and Akerman Roads on the edge of the Minet estate. He called it Loughborough House.
Fast forward to the mid-eighteenth century and Loughborough House was still the most significant property in the area. In Rocque’s map from the 1740s, there is a hamlet or scattering of smallholdings called Coldharbour. The road on the map which runs to Loughborough House through Coldharbour is today’s Loughborough Road; and the road on the map called Camberwell Lane is today’s Coldharbour Lane.
Fast forward another century and things changed utterly. Loughborough House was demolished in the 1850s, brick terraces were going up everywhere, and within a few yards of Loughborough Road several new thoroughfares – Flaxman Road, Herne Hill Road, Milkwood Road – were all emptying themselves into Coldharbour Lane.
In other words the area was already a road junction before the railways arrived. But it required the railways before it was referred to as a junction.
Although South London had some early commuter lines – London Bridge to Greenwich, London Bridge to Croydon – much of its early railway history focused on longer-distance lines to the south coast and south-west. By the 1860s, however, the commercial value of urban commuter traffic was clear, and railway companies were eager to cram South London – and the rest of metropolitan London – with new routes. The London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. (LCDR)
already had a profitable long-distance line, and was now intent on breaking into London’s urban commuter market. In the 1860s the LCDR built an elevated north-south line, on embankments and viaducts, from Blackfriars and Elephant & Castle down to Herne Hill; and, in partnership with another company, an elevated east-west line linking London Bridge to Victoria.
At the point where these lines crossed the company built a railway station in 1864, and called it Brixton Junction. It was briefly renamed Loughborough Road in July 1872; and then Loughborough Junction from December 1872.
The visual drama of Loughborough Junction is created not just by the railway junction above, but rather by its superimposition on the road junction below: a convergence of brick and tarmac, crouched beneath a convergence of steel and concrete; a grubby confusion of urban energy, impatience in all directions and at two levels, hemmed in, compressed and intense.
If Nairn was cool about all this, his comment on the Loughborough Estate – “an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place” – is positively unfair. This was a London County Council project, approved in 1952, opened in 1955. The principal housing architect was Whitfield Lewis, also responsible for the famous Alton Estate in Roehampton. Roehampton, however, had a natural setting with all sorts of possibilities – rising ground, proximity to Richmond Park – which Lewis and his colleagues fully exploited. By comparison, the site at Loughborough offered nothing more than a flat patch of South London basin. Perhaps the estate’s geometry, to which Nairn objected so strongly, was an attempt precisely to create a sense of place, an identity, a quiddity, on an essentially featureless site.
If so, it was an emphatically modernist sense of place, and the Loughborough Estate wears its 1950s social democratic heart on its sleeve. Nine eleven-storey slab blocks, fifteen four-storey blocks, one six-storey block. Acres of reinforced concrete and glass. Sixty years on, it looks remarkably good for its age.
And let’s not forget that each flat, each maisonette, would have seemed like paradise to its first residents, after the slums and bombed-out neighbourhoods from which they came.